|Published in the Partisan Review, Winter 1998. Reprinted with permission.|
An Evening with Doris Lessing
I'm in New York to promote my book Walking in the Shade, which is in the book shops. It is the second volume. That's all I'm going to say about that. I've done my duty.
I want to talk about something else, which I've no doubt is of great concern to all of you, it's what we call "dumbing down." I hear about nothing else here and in England, so while I don't think anything I'm going to say is going to be startlingly novel, perhaps just putting it together might be a help. What is happening in Britain reveals the various symptoms of this rather terrible situation. For example, you find that highly-educated people and literary people say, "Oh well, I'm not going to read that. It's too long. The Mutual Friend is too difficult and anyway I don't understand all the words." This is a kind of style or stance which is regarded as quite amusing. These are not lazy or stupid people, but they are behaving lazily and stupidity and apparently don't know it. There's no shame attached to it. One of our bright young men announced (I've forgotten which literary paper it was in) that if he had been around when Virginia Woolf jumped, he would have been very happy to make sure she drowned and wouldn't come up again. Again: this is a very "smart" remark, admired. Another little symptom is that the classics are being abbreviated, are being published in shortened an easy forms, and no one thinks this is terrible or shameful or in anyway remarkable. I'm just describing things that I'm sure will not surprise you. Another thing is what's going on with publishers. If publishers are here, I've got a feeling they will agree with whatever I say because the publishing houses are packed full of people who love literature and whose hearts are being broken all the time by what happens, by the reign of the accountants.
There is a phenomenon which I call the Educated Barbarian. This is someone who could have been in school or university for many years, could have won prizes by the score, and at the end has read nothing, knows no history, and above all is totally incurious. Quite a large number of my young friends are like this. They're all utterly delightful. We have a wonderful time together. We gossip, we go shopping. We chat about our friends, but at the slightest mention of anything literary their eyes glaze over. Looking back at my misspent youth, I can remember people who were not particularly literary. They were not even very educated, but they would take for granted that they should have read War and Peace. They did not say, "Oh this is so difficult. Oh this is too long and I don't understand the long words." They just read it. That's what people were like then.
So as not to bore you by quoting hundreds more examples of this, I'm going to talk about the reasons for this phenomenon. One is so familiar to us that we take it for granted: that is that every child in Western culture, particularly in Britain and this country, has been brought up with a half-minute attention span. I've been watching television in my hotel bedroom and it's broken up more than it was before. You can't bear it. Your brain starts complaining. Now all the kids have been brought up like this. They take it for granted, moving from one channel to another. They all do, everywhere. Something happened when I came in by plane, and I'm sure it has happened to everyone else. British Airways thought that we would not be able to endure fifteen minutes of silence during the time it would take to park at the gate so they started playing Mozart. It wasn't proper Mozart. It was sound bites from Mozart. The beautiful little bits. Each time music came back on and then they said, "Please don't loosen your seat belts," and then they said, "Have a good day," and then they said, "Thank you for flying with British Airways," and there was the music, which in itself was broken up. By the time all that had been done I felt perfectly sick. Because it hurts. We have all got used to this. We don't complain. I don't know why we don't. The question is, what is it doing to our minds? Now, short attention spans and continual switching from one level to another -- is it possible that it is contributing physically to the triviality that we complain of? The other night I heard a young man with a small child say that the programs made for very small children are deliberately broken up. He was concerned because these programs are no longer continuous narratives. They are all in little bits. The child's brain is being conditioned to operate like that.
Now here are I'm going to raise an enormous question, just to thrown it away. It is my belief that we value narrative because the pattern is in our brain. Our brains are patterned for story telling, for the consecutive. I'm sure if it. I mean, there is nowhere else this pattern could be but in our brains: it doesn't come from outer space. The pattern is being broken up all the time, which means the substance of our brains is being attacked by the kind of books that we're now used to, all in little bits, or the kind of programs we're now used to, or some of the films that we now see, which are so fast that sometimes I find it hard to keep up. None of the young people do. The other night I saw a very gray, very slow, very beautiful film. A young person in the room was saying "cut, cut, cut, cut, cut." He couldn't stand it. He's used to "flick, flick, flick, flick, flick." I'm used to the long, slow narrative and a look on someone's face that tells you about a life and the slow way two people cross a room so you can see what they are like from how they move, and so on. There are two completely different sensibilities here.
Now this inconsequentiality, which we are educating our children to, teaches them they have nothing to do with what's going on. If there's a narrative, you are a part of it. If it is little bits of plot all broken up, then the person does not connect with it, and I wonder if this leads to remarks like that of a young man who murdered someone and said, "Oh well, I didn't realize it would hurt him." This was in London, a young man tortured a half-grown child and said afterwards, "I didn't realize it would hurt him." Well, he's been watching films all his life where torture goes on and he's not connected with it. He's not in the story.
Quite a big question involves music. Once upon a time, music, civilized music, was listened to by a few educated people. What is happening now, as we know, is that everybody is assaulted by music from every direction and young people might spend years of their lives with very loud, thumping music going straight into their brains. Now music is in fact extremely potent, very emotional, and has always been used by governments and authority to affect people. It has been used by churches very efficiently. It is used by governments when they send young men off to war hoping that they will be so tanked up on music that they won't mind being killed. Shamans use it all the time either for healing or for ecstatic purposes. People know that music is very powerful, but apparently we never acknowledge that. Has anyone who is responsible, teachers or educators, thought that this music could in fact damage a young person? It is my belief that a whole generation of young people, and soon it will be more than one, are emotionally disturbed because of music, which goes straight into the emotional centers. There was a very interesting bit of research done in reply to that cliche we used to here so often, "Well, he's a very refined person because he loves Beethoven." They subjected a whole lot of people to very high levels of a spiritual kind of music and after that put questions to them. They were much more blood thirsty than they were before they heard the music. What they had been listening to had affected them in such a way that they were ready for sensational punishments, I mean, punishments that affected them with pleasure because they were brutal. This is a vast subject. I understand that serious research is being done on it, I'm glad to say, because I think is extremely damaging to our young people.
I'm just going to mention political correctness in passing because there's nobody here, I'm sure, who hasn't been involved in the debates about it. I don't want to talk about the actual "party line," as it were, but what it derives from. Political correctness, to my mind, stems straight from the old Communist Party. The mere words "correct," "incorrect," the "correct approach," the "incorrect approach," and so on. It is Party language, and it is bullying. But what has happened is that yet again we have enormous numbers of people all over the world sharing a readiness to accept a particular dogma, as if they have no critical faculties. I'm well aware that I'm skating over some dangerous ground, but this is how I see it. I think it's probably the most astonishing phenomenon of our time, that from one end of the world to the other you will hear people murmuring, "It's politically correct" or "It's not politically correct." Who ordered them to do this? And why? Why does everyone fall on their backs and wave their little paws in the air? Why do we do it? Why don't we say to these bullies, "Go back and torment your friends with this nonsense and leave us in peace"? The whole world is now mouthing these little cliches. I do not understand it. I think it is utterly astounding that this should have happened. We lost one dogma, the Communists dogma, the Party line in literature -- which went far beyond the Party and the Left and affected all kinds of people far removed from the left wing -- but we so love our chains that we instantly drag on a new set. That is how I see it.
Another thing that lowers standards generally is the way that literature is taught, which is part of political correctness. It is itemized. It is pulled apart. It is dissected. I do not think any author who has ever written has imagined his or her work being dissected in this way. They see it as a whole.
Very often journalists come to me and the first question goes like this. They say, "Mrs. Lessing, do you think a writer ought to...?" Now this nearly always has to do with taking a public stand on something and I say to them, "Do you know where that question comes from? Do you know what you're antecedents are? No?" The antecedents are the Communist Party and the left-wing rhetorical language. Writers should be out on the barricades. I mean, I don't have to belabor this to this audience. I say, "I think every writer is different and every writer should have their private conscience and it's not a question of writers having to do anything. Why are you talking like this?" But this is so far removed from the way they have been taught that they literally don't understand what I mean. Because of course they belief writers ought to be on soap boxes of some kind or toeing some party line, political correctness among them.
Now I'm going to talk about a kind of revolution that we're living through. It's the electronic revolution. We're in the middle of an absolute, total change, but it is not the first one we have gone through. We went through the print revolution, which we now take for granted. For a long time there were books in monasteries, read by a few monks or privileged people with libraries, but not everyone had books. Then came printing presses. What you read about that time what is astounding is how quickly Europe was flooded with books, from one end to the other. Suddenly, within a few years, everybody had their own books and everybody was reading. It is worthwhile remembering that when people first started to read, they read aloud. It did not occur to them that they could read silently. The monasteries were very noisy places. Everybody was reading aloud at the top of their voices. Then it occured to them that they didn't have to read aloud. They could mouth what they were reading and suddenly it all fell silent. The next thing that occured to them was that they didn't have to do that either. It could all go on their heads. According to a book I just read, this process took two and a half to three centuries. We don't know what happened to our brains when that happened. What did happened to the human brain when print assaulted it? Have we ever asked this? We probably have and I haven't read what these investigators have said. There is one thing that we do know happened. We lost our memories. Before that, people without address books or encyclopedias kept it all in their heads. They had the addresses of all their friends, reams of poetry, information of all kinds, they had it all here. I have met people from Africa, illiterate, who keep everything in their heads: pages and pages of addresses and telephone numbers and the names of books and the names of people. We couldn't keep that much in our heads. We have lost a faculty and we don't even know we have. This is one of the results of the print revolution. We have lost a very valuable capacity. We are, these people think, very defective people. Well, we are defective compared to them. Now, what are we losing that we don't know we're losing is my question. At that time I very much doubt whether everybody was sitting around saying, "Well, now we're going to lose our memories." It probably never occurred to them. But role on the centuries and we've forgotten what happened. What is happening to us at this very moment, I wonder, that we don't know about?
I want to remind us all nostalgically about how things used to be. Goethe, at the very end of his life, said, "I have only just learned how to read." He was a very old man and one of the great intellects of Europe, a great poet, so it is unlikely that he meant he had only learned how to use the ABC or put sentences together. He said he'd only just learned to read and what did he mean? Here, in his diary, is a description of what I think he meant and what I think reading should be, and it's not how we teach it. He says -- and I have to say the prose is a bit cluttered, but I don't think that can be Goethe's fault: "Hence it is everyone's duty to inquire into what is internal and peculiar in a book which particularly interests us, and at the same time above all things, to weigh in what relation it stands to our own inner nature and how far by that vitality our own is excited and made fruitful. On the other hand, everything that is external, that is ineffective with respect to ourselves, or subject to a doubt, is to be consigned over to criticism, which, even if it should be able to dislocate and dismember the whole, would never succeed in depriving us of the only ground to which we hold fast, nor even perplexing us for a moment with respect to our once formed confidence." I need to repeat that phrase, "What is internal and peculiar in a book which interests us and at the same time above all things, to weigh in what relation it stands to our own inner nature and how far by that vitality our own is excited and made fruitful." Now that seems to me what reading should be and what should be taught to children. What Goethe meant was that you should not bring your own agendas to a book. You should not be looking for your political messages, your own ideas. On the contrary, you should be rather passive. You should allow no barrier between yourself and what the author is saying. It should be a kind of transparency. Now this in fact is rather hard to achieve because our minds are always full of some agenda or other, and it's very hard not to put that into the book. "Well he should be doing that, he shouldn't be doing that, she oughtn't to be doing that..." There is a book called A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel, which is brilliant. It ought to be in the hands of young people, because it will tell them just how valuable reading has been, how it has been valued in a way that they do not because they haven't been taught to. It is my personal view that our minds have been damaged, I'm being serious. I think we might have damaged minds. That is why we are getting stupider and stupider. It's not ill will or television only. My own attention span is much shorter, and this is not old age, either.
I want to briefly touch on something else that is very much related. I have been describing the situation in developed countries, in our own kind of society but there is a very big world out there, the Third World, which does not have our "advantages." I was in a school in North London talking to some very privileged young men. They had people like myself every week, and I stood there looking at these faces and I knew they were thinking, "O God," (because they had to, this is compulsory) "we've got to sit through this," so I started to describe to them what I had seen two days before. I had been in a very desolate place in Northeast Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, at a school which consisted of some barracks stuck in the sand. They had practically no books, textbooks, not even an atlas. It goes without saying that they didn't have electric lights or telephones. All the kids were saying, "Please give me your books. Please can I have your books. Please send books from London." This is a place where they frisk the children coming out of class in case they've stolen books because their desire is so great. They found a tome on advanced physics under a little boy's bed and said to him, "Why did to steal this book? You can't understand it," and he said, "I want a book of my own." I could in fact wring your hearts with many tales like this, but I will just quote another little example. This happened to a friend of mine who continually travels the country trying to provide books. Two young men came to her, aged sixteen and seventeen, and said "We hear you have some books. We have built ourselves a library. Come and see it." They had built a little grass hut and a wooden plank, creosoted for the white ants, and that was the library. They said, "There is our library. Can we have some books?" Said she did what she could. I know people who work all over the Third World. The place I happened to know is Zimbabwe, but this happens everywhere. A friend of mine went out into a remote village and threw away the paper she'd wrapped her shoes in and everyone dived for the newspaper. It was weeks old. It was a treasure. It was precious. Now my son who went out to work with this team for a little bit took a taxi from the airport to the city and told the driver what he was doing and a man said, "Well, the government has taught us how to read but they don't give us any books." Theirs is a government that pays lip service to providing libraries and books but in fact does not do it and that is true all over southern Africa. It is an astonishing fact that people who have hardly held a book in their hands yearn for them, because they certainly haven't had any decent libraries or they've been very lucky if they have. They beg for books. Why? I mean, it is a strange fact that there you have this reverence for books and for literature, but in our kind of society we worry day and night about the fact that kids don't want to read. It could also be that you don't value what you get easily. The book team that I am involved with takes out packages of books. Do not imagine that they're the kind of books we would be deeply moved by because they're just what the local publishers produce. This letter comes from place called Gokwe where they were taken two boxes of books which sit on a shelf under a tree. That is the local library. It has transformed this area. There must have been about forty books. This letter reads: "People from different areas they flock to drink and swallow at our library. I can compare our library as a source of life. A human being cannot live without water, reading books. Books is their rainwater." Now I think that there are people in this room whose grandparents might have had this attitude towards reading books. I think that my grandfather or his grandfather did, and it is gone from our society. The paradox is this: that the brains of people in a place like Zimbabwe, who have probably never seen a fax or word processor or computer or any of the stuff that we take for granted, might be in better shape than our kids because they have not been assaulted all the time. They are of course going to catch up with us, but probably not as efficiently because they have governments which steal everything that comes their way. It might in fact save them. This is a fairly cynical remark, but it's a funny thing that I can have a conversation with a young teacher in the bush who is trying to teach without proper textbooks, without an atlas, without anything, who loves books as the people in this room do, who yearns for them, and who sees books as a source of life, but I couldn't have this conversation with my highly-educated young friends in Britain, who are not interested. They are not interested in ideas. They're not interested in anything in books. I'm merely describing something. I have no solution for it. As I said before, I think probably many of you are familiar with a lot of what I have said. These are the sad thoughts that are running through my head at this moment.
[Subsequent discussion not reprinted.]
- Return to Periodicals, Essays, Articles, Collections Index